I’ve been thinking a lot about two events that happened in the last two weeks. Though handled differently, they shared the similarity of talking about our differences.
I participate in a virtual writing class with four other writers. A couple of weeks ago, one of the writers, a retired college professor, began to talk about gender identity, particularly in today’s generation. The conversation arose from our study of developing fictional characters—their wants, needs, and “shards of glass,” which is a metaphor for the internal wounds we (or our characters) carry within.
Bear in mind that I am writing about this “event” from my point of view and after the passage of two weeks, so it’s possible my recollection is either distorted by time or by perception. If I recall correctly, she commented that in her opinion, people today “use” gender identity as a means to stand out or to be different—in other words, as a means to get attention. She wasn’t making a judgement, only stating an opinion from her perspective.
As I listened, I began to feel uncomfortable for a couple of reasons. One, there have been instances when I wondered the same thing. Two, because another member of our group—someone I’ve considered a friend for ten or more years—has dealt with her own gender issues and the challenges of coming out as her authentic self. I felt protective of her feelings and was concerned hurt or anger about the comment would result in a verbal outburst, or worse, that she might leave the group, which would be a great loss. Lastly, I was uncomfortable because conflict is at the top of my list of things to avoid.
I should have known better, because I’ve seen how my friend handles these discussions in the past. Instead of showing she was offended or angry, she kindly thanked the woman for expressing her opinion. Then, she let the woman know that she is non-binary. She briefly talked about the pain her gender identity has brought in her life as she began to “come out” to friends and loved ones. She added that if anything she would rather NOT have had to experience that kind of attention.
She didn’t in any way reprimand the woman for her opinion, only tried to help the woman understand gender identity from her perspective.
Over the next few minutes, as they each spoke about their opinions and feelings about gender identity, we all were given an opportunity to learn and understand more about a topic that is often filled with so much emotion, even fear, needed discussions don’t ever take place.
You probably heard about what happened with Whoopi Goldberg. On the Monday, January 31 episode of The View, she said:
“The Holocaust isn’t about race. It’s about man’s inhumanity to man.”
Her remarks drew backlash from many Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League and the U.S. Holocaust Museum. On Late Night with Stephen Colbert, she attempted to explain what she meant by her statement:
“When we talk about race, it’s a very different thing to me. As a Black person, I think of something that I can see.”
Unfortunately, her attempted explanation only made the situation worse, so she issued an apology via Twitter:
On Tuesday, February 1, Whoopi opened the episode of The View with yet another apology:
“I said something that I feel a responsibility for not leaving unexamined, because my words upset so many people, which was never my intention. I understand why now, and for that I am deeply, deeply grateful because the information I got was really helpful, and it helped me understand some different things.
I said the Holocaust wasn’t about race and was instead about man’s inhumanity to man. But it is indeed about race because Hitler and the Nazis considered Jews to be an inferior race.
Now, words matter and mine are no exception. I regret my comments, as I said, and I stand corrected. I also stand with the Jewish people as they know and y’all know, because I’ve always done that.”
Following Goldberg’s apology, Anti-Defamation League CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, appeared as a guest and further discussed why Whoopi’s statement was incorrect and uninformed:
“The first page of Maus, the book you were talking about yesterday, Whoopi, it opens with a quote from Hitler and literally, it says, ‘The Jews undoubtedly are a race, but they are not human.’”
Still, ABC suspended her for two weeks. Kim Godwin, ABC News President, stated:
“Effective immediately, I am suspending Whoopi Goldberg for two weeks for her wrong and hurtful comments. While Whoopi has apologized, I’ve asked her to take time to reflect and learn about the impact of her comments. The entire ABC News organization stands in solidarity with our Jewish colleagues, friends, family and communities.”
What if more of us could talk about our differences the way the two people in my writing group talked? Respectful and open. Not judgmental or mean. Whether or not either mind was changed, I believe both women left the conversation considering what was said and respecting and understanding the other’s perspective. Whether change happens or not, this kind of discussion leaves open the possibility of change—of moving closer together rather farther apart.
What happened with Whoopi Goldberg offered no such opportunity.
With Whoopi, several issues come to my mind. First, I believe what she said was uninformed. Some have called it ignorant, and yes, it was ignorant in the true sense of the word, not the ugly, name-calling sense. Prior to The View episode, she defined race as the color of one’s skin—a definition derived from her own personal history. By saying the Holocaust was not about race, but about “man’s inhumanity to man,” in no way was she lessening the hideousness of the Holocaust. She simply did not think it was race-related. After discussion with the Jewish community, she learned otherwise and apologized.
I don’t think a mistake without malice should have resulted in such harsh disciplinary action, especially after a sincere apology. I feel very strongly that ABC’s decision to suspend Goldberg for two weeks had a detrimental effect.
Concern over making such a “mistake”– of possibly offending someone merely by asking a question or stating an opinion–lessens the possibility of future necessary, perhaps uncomfortable conversations.
I’ve experienced it myself. Whether the topic had to do with politics, religion, culture, sexual orientation, etc., I often will not ask a question or bring up a topic because I don’t want to offend someone, and certainly don’t want to arouse ire or anger.
Sad, isn’t it? Such a lack of discourse only serves to keep us entrenched in our own tribes as we miss opportunities to understand each other, whether we come to any agreement or not.
It used to be okay to “agree to disagree.” It seems today, “agree to disagree” is nothing but an outdated cliché.
Nothing good can come from continuing to grow further and further apart. Fear of our differences and failure to see our similarities grows the chasm between us, wider and deeper until it seems all that’s left is hate.
I see it far too often today.